Sometimes when I post my dinners on Instagram I get questions about how to get your kid to eat healthy food. Nobody wants to have to cook separate meals for the kids. My kid will eat whatever I put in front of him, and that's been the rule from the first day he started eating solid food. Occasionally there's a, "Do I not have to eat all the brussels sprouts?" But it's rare. Kudos to my kid for that genius reverse psychology phrasing. I wonder where he got that.
I used to make my son’s baby food. I would blend up different mixtures of fruits and vegetables and freeze them so that he would have healthy options readily available. I meal prepped for him before I ever even knew meal prepping was a thing. All I knew was that it was cheaper and healthier than jars or pouches of baby food, which were both wins for me – healthier because I knew exactly what was in it. Not that I’m knocking any parent who chooses otherwise, I’m just saying this is what I did. You do you.
When he started to eat actual food, aka not mush, the rule from the beginning is that you have to try any new thing on your plate. You don’t have to like it, but you have to try it. Put familiar food they like mixed with something new and different. My son has always loved any and all fruit, so a meal for him as a toddler might be:
– banana slices – tried and liked
– grilled chicken – tried and was sort of okay with it
– broccoli – new and weird
Just give a little bit of the broccoli and equal amounts of the chicken and bananas. Tell them they can have more bananas when they finish their broccoli and chicken. Use this formula to work in the foods your kid likes and needs to try.
Also, when my son was a toddler, my friend got him this plate which made eating fun and cut the time it took him to finish a meal in half at least. You put a little treat in the last covered space so they know exactly how much they have to eat before they get their prize, but they don’t know what the prize is so their curiosity pushes them through. They should honestly give these plates out as a gift at the hospital to each family when you deliver your baby. It was that useful.
If you say “you have to try it, but you don’t have to like it”, you also have to commit to letting them stop after trying a bite if they don’t like it. There will
probably definitely be a lot of that at the beginning, but over time as they see that you’re really listening to them and on their team, they will be less and less “immediately disgusted” by each new food. Very rarely do I get the completely grossed out look of utter disgust and betrayal on my son’s face when he tries something new. More often, it’s something like, “It’s okay, but not the best,” but he will finish what he has.
At that point, I make an effort to not force him to eat the things he’s not into. There are so many healthy options out there – if your kids don’t like kale, no problem. I mean, who honestly likes kale? Try spinach, collard greens or bok choy. Try cooking it with garlic and onions. Throw some cashews in for crunch. There are so many other options for leafy greens alone, that you can either try a different way of cooking it, or kale can even be tabled and reintroduced in a couple of years.
Remember, the goal is to get them to eat nutritiously so they get their vitamins and minerals, it’s not an ego contest between parent and kid.
You may have the patience of a saint, but you’re going to need to at least double that. It was not always sunshine and rainbows for me, because sometimes kids are jerks. That’s just a fact of life. Sometimes they just won’t eat. Sometimes they throw fits. Sometimes they get too distracted. There were times when my son was younger that he would take over an hour to finally finish a meal. And it’s like, bro. Why.
When this happened, I’m not above bribery, y’all. Finish your food, and get a cookie! Finish your food and get to stay up 20 minutes later! Finish your food and get to play video games with the big kids! I would set timers, which stressed him out and made it worse. I tried putting him in time out. Ultimately I found that punishment made it worse. Positive reinforcement, aka bribery or the promise of something he liked when he was done or when he finished his meal in a reasonable time frame, worked way better.
Let the kids help with meal planning. Say your plan for tonight is fish, quinoa and a vegetable. Let the kids pick the vegetable. When they have a hand in the decision, they will be more likely to eat without complaint. Easy as that.
Confesh: I do this ALL THE TIME. I buy a lot of frozen veggies for those times when I either don’t want to cook what I planned on, or when I’m out of fresh veggies and haven’t been to the store. I’ll hold up 2 choices and let my son pick which one we’re having.
Will your kid only eat broccoli if it has cheese on it? Put frickin’ cheese on it. Over time, add less and less cheese, then maybe switch to a dash of salt. Will your kid only eat brussels sprouts soaked in butter? Again, do it for now and slowly pull back. They’re still getting the vegetable even though it’s covered in fatty goop (technical term), just decrease the unhealthy additions over time, and boom. That kid’s eating broccoli like a BAWSE.
Yup. I put spinach in my kids smoothies and call them “Hulk smoothies”. I put tonnnnns of vegetables in our spaghetti sauce – squash, zucchini, eggplant and more. Our meatloaf recipe is like, half vegetables and no breadcrumbs. It’s amazing it even sticks together. Pizza sauce? Oh yeah, I’m adding carrots and mushrooms. You betcha.
Here’s the thing, you can’t be a jerk about it. Nobody likes to have things rubbed in their face – think of your kid as a person, rather than a child. After my kid finishes his spaghetti – which he loves by the way – I might say something like, “Wasn’t that sooo good? And it had so many yummy vegetables to keep our bodies healthy and help us grow!” And then he will be excited, because yeah it was good, and yeah, growing is awesome. I would not say, “Do you even know how many vegetables you just ate that you wouldn’t eat before? HAHAH I TRICKED YOU.” Don’t do that because then you break the trust you’re building.
Your kids are people, just like you. I mean, hopefully. Think back to when you were a kid and were forced to eat something you hated. Did it make you hate mealtime? Did it make you resent your parents or caretaker? I remember as a kid I HATED asparagus. HATED IT. The thing is, I was never forced to eat it after I realized it was terrible, because I loved carrots, broccoli, peas, spinach, etc. It’s okay if your kid dislikes a vegetable, we all did it. You just have to find the veggies they like and serve those. For the record, I like asparagus now and my kid does, too.
We just want our kids to be healthy, and working with them to find the things they like to eat that are also healthy, is the ultimate end goal.
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